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  • Grounding Human Dignity and Rights:A Thomistic Response to Wolterstorff
  • Paul A. Macdonald Jr.

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH has taught consistently that there are basic human rights, such as the right to life, the right to the material means necessary properly to develop one's life, the right to be respected, the right to pursue truth freely, the right to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of one's conscience, and the right to be given the opportunity to work.1 Moreover, the Church has taught that the ground of these rights is the dignity and worth that all human beings inherently possess. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that "Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone."2 And as a person—a possessor of a nature "endowed with intelligence and free will," in the words of Pacem in Terris—the human individual "has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature."3 The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts the point this way: "the roots of human rights are to be found in the dignity that belongs to each human being" and that "the ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere [End Page 1] will of human beings, in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator."4

The overall goal of this article is to defend the Church's teaching on human dignity and rights, and specifically the Church's claim that human dignity, as the ground of human rights and duties, derives from our being persons created in God's image. My defense unfolds in two main stages. First, in section I, I summarize Nicholas Wolterstorff's recent, important answer to the question of what grounds human dignity and rights, and specifically those rights that Wolterstorff calls natural human rights: legitimate claims against others to be treated in a certain way, which we retain not on account of the actions of others (conferring rights on us) but rather because qua human we possess great dignity and worth.5 Consistent with Catholic teaching, Wolterstorff holds that human beings possess great dignity and worth in virtue of standing in a certain relation to God. However, Wolterstorff denies that it is possible to ground human dignity and rights in either personhood or the imago dei. Instead, he argues that it is only because all human beings bear the property of being loved by God, with what he calls "attachment" love, that they possess great dignity and worth, in which human rights inhere.

In the second, more extensive stage of my defense, drawing heavily on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, I reflect on and challenge Wolterstorff's claim that personhood and the imago dei cannot account for the dignity that grounds human rights. In section II, I show how, according to Wolterstorff's own criteria for what constitutes a dignity-based ground of human rights, [End Page 2] human beings possess rights- and duty-grounding dignity and worth as persons. In section III, I show how human beings possess rights- and duty-grounding dignity and worth as divine creations and image-bearers. Of course, from the Church's perspective, these claims speak to the same truth or reality: as divine creations and image-bearers, we are also persons ("endowed with intelligence and free will") who possess rights-and duty-grounding dignity and worth. What I argue, though, in an effort both to clarify and to bolster Church teaching, is that fully grounding human dignity and rights, or giving a complete account of human dignity and rights, requires affirming that human beings qua persons are divine creations and image-bearers, because it is only by affirming that we are divine creations and image-bearers that we can give a complete account for why we are also persons who possess dignity and rights.

My main goal here is not to develop a Thomistic theory of rights or to ground a full theory of rights in Aquinas.6 Nor is it to defend the...


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